Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Special Blog: Burial vs. Cremation

This is a special post to assist a friend who unfortunately is with family burying their cousin.  The question was asked, “Why does the Catholic Church prefer burial over cremation?”

In order to understand inhumation (traditional burial) and cremation, we need to understand how the Church views the human person and resurrection of the body.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) will assist us in our discussion.

Due to resurgences in the ancient heresy of Manichaeism, it is a common misconception, that the body is a container that holds or traps the spirit.  Moreover, many believe that there is no need for the body or the soul.  This Gnostic teaching devalues the body and elevates the soul or spirit as if the human person is an angelic being.  In contrast, it has been the consistent teaching of the Church that the soul is who you are while the body is the instrument by which we express ourselves:

Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.[1]

To separate the body from the soul is an abomination that occurred through original sin:

The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body:[2] i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature. (CCC §365)

A person is not truly “human” without his or her body. A human soul without its body has no way of learning or experiencing/perceiving the physical world for it has no senses.  The body therefore is an integral part of who and what we are – two realities that cannot be separated.

The Christian belief in the resurrection is central to her teachings (CCC §991). Additionally,

“The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God – it is not “produced” by the parents – and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.” (CCC § 366)

Again, the CCC §364 states,

“The human body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit.”

And finally, CCC §2300 says,

“The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection.”

Still, even after death the body is of vital importance defining who we are.  The resurrection is the divine reconciliation to the problem of bodily separation won by the Christ on Easter Sunday.

There was a time during Church history that cremation was not allowed for Christian burial.  The challenge the Church had (has) is not so much with cremation but with the reasoning behind those who wanted to be cremated.

In his book Questions and Answers, Father John Dietzen explains “the first general legislation banning the burning of bodies as a funeral rite burning of bodies as a funeral rite came from the Vatican’s Holy Office in May 1886, noting the anti-religious and Masonic motivation behind the movement. The 1918 Code of Canon Law continued that ban because cremation was still considered a flagrant rejection of the Christian belief in immortality and the resurrection.”  Exceptions were made in the code for urgent crises that arose from plagues, epidemics and wars.

Fr. Dietzen also mentioned that the Holy Office in 1926 shared that there are times that cremation may be desirable due to, “financial, emotional, hygienic, and others.  It presumes that people who request cremation are doing so in good faith, not out of some irreligious motive.”

For these reasons, the Church encourages burial over cremation.  The sanctity of the body in life remains even in death.  It is through the daily experience of the body that virtue is achieved and holiness is received through the Holy Spirit.

[1] Gaudium et Spes 14 § 1; cf. Daniel 3:57-80.

[2] Cf. Council of Vienne (1312): Enchiridion symbolorum, definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum (DS) 902.

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